2 U.S. centers open to treat badly injured Haitian evacuees

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2010; A10

TAMPA -- After a five-day suspension of medical evacuation flights from Haiti that threw the fates of hundreds of gravely injured earthquake victims into doubt, new Federal Coordinating Centers are now open for business at airports in this city and in Atlanta.

In three days of operation, the command centers have overseen the arrival of dozens of injured Haitians, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, and quelled the concerns of Florida officials who said last week that the federal government was saturating state hospitals with patients without arranging for the cost of their treatment.

Gov. Charlie Crist (R) said the state was more than willing to help with relief efforts, but urged the federal Department of Health and Human Services to activate the National Disaster Medical Service for natural disasters, terrorism attacks and major transportation accidents and come up with a better plan. In response to Crist's concerns, flights were suspended last week, and then the NDMS was activated Sunday. Under that system, the first military cargo jet carrying patients arrived at Tampa International Airport the following night. Five Haitians were brought to Atlanta on Tuesday night.

"Medical evacuations have only been used in limited instances where patients had medical needs that could not be met in Haiti," said USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. Meanwhile, he said, the United States is working to help the Haitian government "create long-term care facilities in-country. Continued medical assistance is critical to these efforts."

Washington has numerous issues left to resolve as it rushes to deliver aid. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has issued about 50 Humanitarian Parole visas to badly injured Haitians who would not be likely to survive without treatment in the United States. But the service has not yet said how it would track the patients after they recover and perhaps enter the general population with family members.

Humanitarian Parole typically expires after a year, but can be extended via an application submitted at least 30 days before expiration. The large majority of Haitian nationals who have arrived in the United States as a result of injuries from the Jan. 12 earthquake hold other types of visas, officials said.

With 65 available hospitals in the area, Tampa was a practical choice for federal officials seeking to place injured Haitians. Atlanta was the second-best location, with 41 area hospitals. Miami's hospitals are already saturated with more than 400 patients from Haiti.

Tampa and Atlanta are two of several regions that volunteered to help when contacted over the weekend during a White House brainstorming session to resolve Florida's concerns. Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Lyons, N.J., are on standby to activate Federal Coordinating Centers if needed, an HHS spokeswoman said.

Participating hospitals usually have more than 100 beds and are located in large metropolitan areas, according to a health and human services statement. They agree to commit a number of their acute-care beds, subject to availability, for NDMS patients. Under NDMS, Haitian care will be reimbursed by the federal government at 110 percent of Medicare rates.

"States have been tremendous partners in the response effort to the devastating earthquake in Haiti," said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "This is part of our larger strategy, working with the government of Haiti and our international partners, to help increase the capacity both inside Haiti, as well as in the U.S. and other countries, to help Haitians who need critical medical assistance."

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